Our Laguna: Into the Susi Q Senior Center

The late Art Linkletter wrote a book titled "Growing Old Isn't for Sissies."

Well, the Susi Q Senior Center isn't for sissies either. Programs are designed to challenge participants to stretch themselves mentally and physically.

On Tuesday morning alone, one group was dissecting articles found in Scientific American magazine, and another group was discussing current events. The Persian Club met, a foursome played bridge in the library and some hardy elders were exercising muscles including the brain that will help them stay on their own two feet.

The Current Events Discussion Group meets on Tuesdays and Fridays. Participants bring in news items they think are noteworthy and everyone comments, which leads to some lively give-and-take.

Skipper Lynn brought in a study on causes of stress, including poverty.

Dorothy Natal suggested that the decline of the middle class is a cause.

"When I grew up, we were told we could be anything we wanted to be," she said.

"Education is part of the answer," said Bill Allen, co-facilitator of the group with Paul Schmitt.

Schmitt opined that a certain percentage of those born poor will not overcome it. Magda Herlicska agreed.

"Some people are driven, others are more laid back," Herlicska said.

Duncan Nickle reported on the mob scene on the Fourth of July in Huntington Beach.

When he left after his annual visit with his daughter to see the fireworks, he and his wife were trapped on Pacific Coast Highway by the hordes heading toward downtown Huntington Beach.

"It took 45 minutes to go three blocks," Nickle said. "What amazed me was their desire to be part of it."

Science discussions this week included a debate on divine intervention — alien or otherwise.

Later, I sat in, literally on a fall prevention class. It was a revelation.

I watched while instructor Geeta Singh put 20 seniors through their paces for an hour and 15 minutes, helping them prevent falls by improving balance, strength and focus.

"This class is phenomenal," said Lola Gillebaard who starred in Laguna's production of the "Vagina Monologues," but is best known as a "sit-down" comedian--she has had more than 15 operations and stands and walks with a cane.

The class began with modified Tai Chi: reaching up to the clouds, gathering flowers, rolling the wheel and polishing the table while seated, followed by arm and shoulder stretches and head rolls, designed to stave off or reduce the effects of osteoporosis, one of the banes of aging.

Next, the group used colored stretch bands to strengthen "fast-twitch" muscles that we count on to grab something when we are on the verge of falling.

The bands also build stamina. Stepping on them and pulling without pausing increases endurance.

"Endurance means you can do exercises when you are here in class and then go out and do your errands," Singh said.

But that doesn't mean pushing oneself beyond one's capabilities, she said.

"One senior came to the class fatigued and then ran errands," Singh said. "She tripped and fell. What should she have done? She should have rested after the class. There are couches all around [the center].

"If someone gets dizzy in the class or tired, they should sit down."

Singh keeps a close eye on the participants, one reason the class size is limited to 20.

Still seated, participants exercised their leg muscles, which also helps strengthen core muscles if done while holding in one's stomach. The other benefit is better bladder control.

"I am interested in preventing incontinence," said participant Teddy Edwards. "The information and exercises help."

Other band exercises are good for the inner ear, which sends messages to the brain that you are about to fall.

Standing exercises included lunges, leg lifts and balancing with one foot off the ground, which I surreptitiously tried and failed.

For klutzes like me, the exercise can be conducted with one or both hands on a chair or at the ballet barre until balance improves.

Singh also demonstrated the proper posture for walking, neither hunched forward nor leaning back.

Arms should swing with each step, and the stride should equal the width of one's shoulders.

Back to the chairs, the class performed some eye-hand coordination exercises to train folks to look where they are going, concluding with stretches, torso turns to the left and right and bending down to touch their toes, which is good for sciatica and to prevent a curved spine, according to Singh.

"I have pain all the time and I am trying to get rid of it with these exercises," Shirley Hall said.

Carol Kelly said preventive information has been helpful, but the exercises also engage the mind, which appeals to Anne Frank.

"My coordination has improved and (the exercises) have helped my balance, strength and mobility," Marlene Bram said.

Barbara Ring quit the program, but has rejoined.

"I hope it helps," she said.

High praise for Singh was nearly unanimous.

Participant Rose Conken, 90, inspired me to sign up for the next class for beginners, scheduled to start in October. There is already a wait list of 30, 10 more than the optimum and Singh is considering adding a second class.

"I am a volunteer here every Tuesday," Ramona Louck said. "I see how happy these women are when they leave the class."

There was one man in the class. He didn't want to be identified, but said men should participate, too. For those who can't make it on Tuesday, Pierce Shannon's Senior Standing Yoga Class is held from 9 to 10 a.m., Monday and Friday. Drop-ins are OK. A $3 donation is suggested.

A complete list of programs is available at the center, which folks should visit just to see the art work on display and to speak to Executive Director Nadia Babayi about programs not currently provided. She'll listen.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call 1 (714) 966-4608 or emailcoastlinepilot@latimes.com with Attn. Barbara Diamond in the subject line.

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